Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Most Polite Chicken Eats Last: Lonely in Rovinj

            Nicole sat on her bed and carefully considered the polish on her toenails. On her big toe she had painted a rosy mauve, on the next a peach, the middle a rusty red, the next a standard red, and on the little piggy that cried "whee," all the way home a fashionable but startling shade of puce. She angled her foot nearer the bedside lamp, stretching her toned leg at an odd angle to do so, to get a better idea of which color looked best at the moment. After what should have seemed undue consideration, she settled on the startling puce. She removed all the polish so she could start with a fresh canvas.
            Before applying the base coat, she touched her face. The pore-minimizing mask had dried to a crackly shell. She decided to remove it before wet toenails made movement more difficult.
            As part of the exchange program, Hotel Adria had put Nicole up in a tiny studio at the back of the facility. The apartment consisted of one big room that contained the bare necessities: single bed, kitchen table, three wooden chairs, two bedside tables, one with a tiny television, and a basic kitchen set-up. A door on the far side of the kitchen led to a miniscule -- and unheated -- bathroom. The studio reminded her of the dorm she had lived in her freshman year, though here she at least had it to herself. It was scarcely bigger than her bedroom in the house she had shared with Maura and Leese the last two years of college.
            Nicole entered the bathroom. The round pedal sink provided no space for anything but soap, so she kept her toothbrush and paste in the toiletry bag hanging from the towel rack. The toiletry bag had been a going-away gift from Leese. Nicole had laughed when she saw it, telling her friend, "I'm not backpacking across Europe like you did two summers ago. I'm just making the one move." Leese had given her a sage look. "Trust me. When you see the European bathrooms, you'll be glad to be as self-contained as possible." Nicole had long since emailed Leese to let her know she'd been right.
            Nicole peeled the mask from her face in several strips then rinsed her face in cold water, as the package had suggested. She checked the results in the mirror hanging flat against the wall. She had good skin, smooth and pliable and with a faint olive tinge from her father. Her features came mostly from her mother: high cheekbones, turned-up blue eyes, and bee-stung lips. Nicole was pretty.
            She was also lonely. It was Saturday night, and rather than preparing to go out, she was simply preparing. She remembered with a twinge of nostalgia all the times Maura had put on a "going out" cd, and the three girls had danced around the house while performing their beauty rituals. She thought about the bars and dance clubs they'd frequented in LoDo, Denver's historic and now trendy district. She even remembered with a fond twinge those sports bars and that dollar-a-drink dive Shaun always insisted they patronize. She pictured her friends, Maura and Leese, their more casual going-out acquaintances, Shaun and his posse before he'd broken up with her.
            She sighed and looked away from the mirror, Shaun had broken up with her shortly before their senior year of college began. He had been honest as to the reason -- or she imagined he was honest since he'd told her, "Pro scouts are looking at me. I'm getting invited to some exclusive parties, and there are some really beautiful women there. I don't want to cheat on you, but I want to ... you know." It had hardly provided the highlight of her own senior year in college; she also had not wanted it to provide a defining moment in her senior year. Or in her life.
            Nicole's father had accused her of such when she had told him about the work abroad program into which she had been accepted.
            "Nikki, I know that punk Shaun broke your heart, but that's no reason to move across the world."
            Nicole didn't want to think about that year now beyond the fun she'd had with her friends. No matter how much snow was on the ground, no matter on which side of zero the thermometer hovered, the bars had been packed any weekend they decided to indulge. Not so apparently Rovinj. Here it was, only near the end of October, and the town had nearly sunk into hibernation. A little chill in the air, a little drizzle, and the townsfolk felt their best course of action lay in staying at home with the family watching TV.  That had been Matija's plan anyway, in response to a general text for entertainment she'd sent out: "slight fever. will stay home for tv." His had been the only response.
            To show willing to whatever omniscient entity might care about such things, Nicole flipped through the three channels on her laptop-sized television. Hrvatska Televizija 1 was broadcasting a political talk show. Hrvatska Televizija 2 had on a basketball game. Nova Televizija was showing a Swedish film with Croatian subtitles. Nicole had actually watched this last for some minutes before she realized that she not only had no idea what the plot was, she also could not recognize which character was which; they were all tall, sandy-haired, and androgynous. So, she'd given up on observing this apparent Croatian fall custom.
            On her way back to the bed, Nicole looked out her one window. If she looked past a fig tree, now in its golden autumn coat, she could make out a small portion of the path that led to the center of town. The path was completely deserted. She supposed people could blame the cold drizzle... She pictured Maura laughing at her freezing toes because she'd worn open-toed clogs in a snowstorm rather than the obligatory boots. "These go better with my outfit," she'd reasoned, which Maura agreed with despite her amusement.  In Croatia, Nicole sighed and sat on the bed. Welcome to a resort town in the off-season. Gone were the crowds of summer, made up mostly of tourists and what few locals there were. Gone even were the wandering revelers of a month ago, this time mostly locals with a few hardy tourists.
            "Nikki, you're hungover. Just because you're my daughter doesn't mean you don't have to follow the same responsibilities as your co-workers. Here at the hotel you're just another employee..."
            "My daughter" -- Gerald Bouchard's daughter, the "Mr. Bouchard, General Manager," of the whole East Coast branch of the hotel chain.
            "Daddy, see, it's perfect. I get a whole bunch of experience when it's not too busy. Then, when all the tourists come, I'll be ready to fulfill all my responsibilities."
            That had been another unpleasant conversation, the one with, "Nikki, I know that punk Shaun broke your heart, but that's no reason to move across the world."
            She had tried every reason and rationalization to explain to her father why she wanted to join this program; however, since her graduation would afford her a promotion at his hotel chain, the reasonings hadn't flown. He had blamed Shaun's break-up with her. Nicole hadn't wanted to admit how adrift she'd felt those months without him, so she'd thrown out the other reason for feeling adrift: "Mom was Croatian."
            "Third generation, and less than half."
            "Still. It's like my birthright."
            "With that rationale, you'd have more call to go to France."
            Nicole didn't stoop to pointing out the obvious: her daddy was still alive. "The program's in Croatia."
            Gerald Bouchard snorted. "That's because it's a poor little country with war just a few years past -- they probably need the cheap labor."
            "It's only a year."
            He shrugged. "You're a grown woman, Nikki."
            Then why do I feel like a child talking to you about this?
            As if reading her thoughts, he admonished, "You will have to live on whatever pittance they choose to pay you."
            "I already live within my means." It was mostly true; except for the occasional extravagance her daddy indulged her with, he had insisted she live on her wages ever since she moved out for college.
            "I mean it, Nikki. I won't send you any care packages, not in the form of funds or beauty products or anything else."
            "I understand, Daddy."
            "And you'll have to pay your own way back if you want to come home for Christmas."
            "Welcome to the cold, cruel world, Nicole Bouchard. I'll make sure you can make it home again at the end, but any frivolities need to come out of your own pocket."
            Frivolities. Autumn in Rovinj didn't look like it would promise many of those.

            The next morning Nicole exited her studio, passed the golden fig tree, and walked down the path leading to the town center. Light rain dropped on her head, but she refused to acknowledge it. She was heading for Sax, one of the ubiquitous cafe-bars that lined the waterfront, the riva. She carried an indulgence she had granted herself, her monthly subscription to Glamour: Britain. She had read it cover to cover already, but she wanted to be prepared in case none of her acquaintances were at Sax. However, when she entered the cafe-bar, she spotted Martina and Tena, a pinch-faced, top-heavy blonde, sitting at a back table; they were sitting with a couple Nicole didn't recognize. Martina saw her and waved her over. Nicole's mood lightened for about ten minutes; by then she started feeling awkward "listening" to conversation that was all in Croatian, fast-paced so she could barely catch a word here and there. Finally she heard -- or thought she heard -- Tena say something about Saturday night. Nicole jumped in with English, "Oh, I know. Wasn't it boring?"
            Tena rolled her eyes. "Hardly. We were at party in Pula. We just return in Rovinj at 5:00 because that is the first bus from Pula."
            "Oh," Nicole answered. Her stomach felt empty, with the unfamiliar sensation of having been excluded. She flicked a convulsive look in Martina's direction.
            Martina shifted in her seat. "Tena and I went for a movie in Pula. Then we went to this party we heard about. We would invite you, but the movie was in Croatian, then it was late and there was no more buses from Rovinj."
            Nicole's face felt hot. She thought it would have been less awkward if Martina hadn't explained about her exclusion. Nonetheless, she answered the apology as gracefully as she could, "Oh, no problem." She pulled her lips into a smile. "I did a little beauty routine."
            The woman of the couple spoke to Martina in Croatian. Tena explained, "Ivan and Ivana haven't any English. Only Croatian, Deutsch, and Italian." Then she looked past Nicole to speak to Ivan. Nicole sat there, listening to what she didn't understand.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Most Polite Chicken Eats Last, Part 1


Early 2000s

            What wonderfully friendly people Rovinjians are Nicole thought as she followed her new friends from cafe to cafe. It was a sultry Mediterranean night, a Croatian summer night -- Rovinj Night, to be exact. Nicole had arrived in this coastal town just a week ago, and here she already had pals for what they assured her was the biggest party weekend of the year in Rovinj -- maybe in all of Istria. Since she was 22 and fresh out of college, pals and party rated high with Nicole.

            Oliver waved her towards himself. "Come on, there is stage near Cafe-Bar Riviera with E.T. playing. We get as close as we can, yes!"

            E.T.? Nicole wondered. I didn't know that little 80s alien had his own rock group. She shrugged and followed Oliver and the others into a roiling crowd, bottlenecked into a passage that led up the Medieval cobblestone street to St. Eufemia's Church, the Mediterranean pink building standing like a crown jewel at the top of the stone-developed hill. Nicole managed to keep sight of Martina, one of her new pals, by virtue of the young woman's height -- not to mention her orange hair cut in a punk style. She followed the bobbing orange swoop through the late-evening crowd.

            As the buildings, built before the concept of city planning, edged into the street like curious eavesdroppers, the crowd grew tight. With booths for beer and tables with tourist-wares for sale framing the throng, movement became something like swimming. Nicole kept her eye on the orange swoop and pushed past her fellow revelers as gently as possible, uttering her newly learned phrase with each step, "Oprostite. Oprostite." Excuse me, over and over again.

            Just as the orange swoops seemed to disappear around a bend, another friendly face appeared in front of her: Matija, a blonde young man who had explained he was the new English teacher at the local high school. He smiled all the way to his warm brown eye. "Too many people, no?"

            "You're telling me!" she shouted over the noise.

            "This is a good band, though." He beckoned with his head. "Idemo -- let's go." They did, deeper into the crowd.

            On the far side of the Cafe-Bar Riviera a mid-sized pier stretched out into the Adriatic Sea. At the base of this pier stood a festival stage with a clearly-human band playing: a curvy blonde singer, stolid-rocker keyboardist, and two trendy beefcakes contorting their bodies in time to the techno beat. The crowd before the stage jerked less-gymnastically in time to the rich tones of the club music.

            Nicole stood with her small group -- Matija, Martina, and Oliver -- jostled by the pulsing crowd around them. Their body heat added to the humid air settling damply onto her skin. She felt like she could be back in Denver on a Saturday night at one of the crowded college bars her ex and about a thousand of their closest friends favored because of its dollar-a-drink specials. Except instead of graffiti-covered ceiling lit dimly with white fluorescent, above her stretched a clear black sky dotted with white stars. She could smell the heated bodies around her, true, but she could also smell the sea, visible as a black mirror beyond the stage. Then an explosion erupted on stage -- a show of pyrotechnics, masking the salty air with its acrid smell. Nicole plucked at the halter of her silk dress, feeling like a wet lily was lying limply on her chest. An elbow-jab in her ribs -- flung by an enthusiastic dancer apparently oblivious to the closeness of the crowd -- caused her to jump and bump her own self into the nearest body. "Oh! Oprostite!" It was Matija.

            He grinned down. "Nema veze -- no problem."

            Nicole grinned back, thinking Hmm," nema veze" means "no problem." And what did he say before? Um... "idemo"? And that means "let's go"? Hey, I can learn some of this language! She bounced in time to the beat.

            After another ten minutes of what sounded like the same song, though, Nicole realized her buzz had worn off. She nudged Matija with her elbow. Before she could make the universal sign for "I'm going to get a drink," he winked. "Nema veze -- except that one felt on purpose."

            Nicole giggled. "No! I mean, yes." He arched his eyebrows in question.  Smile still wide, she offered, "I'm going for a drink. Want one?"

            "I'm still finishing the one you spilled on my shirt."

            She winced. "Oh, yea, sorry again about that."

            He flicked his head playfully then looked her straight in the eye. "Nema veze."

            Nicole tapped Oliver on the arm and did the "going for a drink" sign. He shook his head and waved her off. Martina had moved closer to the stage, out of her range, so Nicole decided she was on her own. She started working her way back out of the crowd, feeling resistance until she got to a wider portion of the street again, further down the hill.

            Treading carefully on cobbles worn smooth by the passage of centuries, she made her way back to the main square, Trg Maršala Tita,named after the famous Yugoslav leader. She got to the end of a line that snaked at least twenty people deep for a glass of wine. Beverage finally in hand, she sat at one of the trestle tables, largely vacant now that dinnertime was long past. Since there was no breeze to stir up the hot August air, Nicole plucked again at her halter before taking a long drink of wine to satisfy her thirst. The young, fruity wine tingled her tongue but did little to quench her thirst or cool her down. She took another sip anyway since she knew it would, at least, return her pleasant buzz. She relaxed, glad to be sitting, thinking her heeled sandals, while undoubtedly fashionable and a clear match to her flirty dress, were a menace to her toes on smooth stone streets. As she sipped more of her wine, she let her eyes wander over the crowd.

            On the main stage, set up in the center of the square, a group of roadies worked quickly to set up for the next performer. Nicole had been enjoying the Euro-rock sounds of one of Croatia's most popular bands, Prljavo Kazalište, before Oliver had suggested they go check out E.T.; obviously the band had finished its set.

            Nicole noticed a group of young teenagers enacting a drama near the central fountin. A boy with mauve spikes had his arm around a cute litte brunette as he laughed with a buddy. Two other girls stood nearby, one dressed plainly for summer, but one dressed in clear imitation of the boy's style: pink streaks in punky hair and ripped clothing stretched tight across her chunky body. Chunky Punky pretended to talk to her friend, taking time at regular intervals to glare at the cute little brunette. Nicole sent a message out to the universe for Mauve Spikes that he ought to pay attention to Chunky Punky since Cute Little Brunette could be anyone's girlfiend; if he was trying so hard ot be unique himself, he should check out the uniqueness of the girls around him.

            "Oni niju opasni, samo mladi."

            Nicole started and looked over her shoulder; she caught immediate sight of a hunky dark Croat -- all shiny black hair and tanned skin over an athletic body. Every girl's inner-flirt would awaken; Nicole responded by cocking her head and looking up at him. "Oprostite?"

            He spoke again in Croatian; his meaning was clear as he indicated the seat across from her. She felt her lips curling up as she nodded, "Oh, da."

            "Hvala," he thanked. He started chatting her up in Croatian.

            Nicole smiled like any uncomprehending foreigner and finally admitted, "I really don't speak any Croatian yet. Do you speak English?"

            Hunky Croat's dark eyes sparkled as he looked directly into hers. "Yes, of course I do. I'm Luka. And you?"

            Hmm, Luka. "Nicole." She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, drawing the lock across her neck. Also drawing Luka's eyes.

            He looked into her face again. "Where are you from, Nicole?"

            She loved the way he said her name. "I'm from the States."

            He nodded. "I thought so. You don't sound British or Australian." His dark eyes looked across her shoulders and down her arm, seeming to note the light tan of her semi-olive skin. "You don't look like them either." He continued, "Where in the U.S.? Denver?"

            Her jaw dropped, and she felt faintly uneasy, like this man could have come across the information covertly. "How did you know?" she demanded.

            Luka, for his part, looked equally astonished. "You are? Truly? I only guessed Denver because I am leaving for there tomorrow to attend the University of Denver." He was obviously proud, especially when he added, "Graduate study." He looked more pointedly at her. "Tell me that was your university."

            "It was," she agreed, relaxing. "What a coincidence."

            "Yes, it is." Luka reached across the table. He took a hold of Nicole's hand and directed, "Kiss me, Nicole."

            "Excuse me?" She felt a slight tingling in her hand, but the audacity of the suggestion took her by surprise.

            "This coincidence -- we must kiss because of it."

            Nicole tried to laugh the directive off. "I'm not going to kiss you." She did not, however, remove her hand.

            "Why not?"

            She stated what seemed the obvious, "We just met, like, five minutes ago!"

            "How long must we know each other before you'll kiss me?"

            Nicole felt her thoughts tilt, as if the wine or the atmosphere or just the situation had finally permeated her mind. She shrugged one shoulder and flirted, "I'll kiss you on our one-hour anniversary."

            Luka nodded. He checked his watch. "It's 11:05. Since we've known each other five minutes, our one-hour anniversary will be midnight." He looked into her eyes again. "Just like Snow White."

            "I think you mean Cinderella."

            "Maybe." He squeezed her fingers. "But I know there will be fireworks."

            The intensity of their exchange -- particularly as reflected in Luka's black eyes -- threw off Nicole's equilibrium. She ducked her head to break the tension, letting the fall of her long hair partly shield her eyes.

            The skin around Luka's eyes tightened for just a moment. Then he relaxed, sitting back. "So, tell me, Nicole, why are you in Rovinj? Are you on holiday?" He looked around. "And if so, where are your friends?" He looked into her face again. "Or your boyfriend?"

            That was fairly smooth, she gauged. Knowing the game, she admitted, "I don't have a boyfriend."

             Luka looked satisfied by this answer. "But surely you're here with friends, then."

            Nicole flashed on Matija and the group, but answered, "Well, I'm not here on vacation, so I came here to Croatia alone." City-breeding, prompted her to add, "But I met some cool people." She looked over her shoulder, as if she expected them to be approaching.

            "Hmm." Luka tweaked one of her fingers, to re-draw her attention. "You didn't answer my question."

            Wasn't the boyfriend part the answer you wanted? She scrolled back to remember the first part of his query. "You mean about why I'm in Rovinj? I just moved here."

            Luka looked taken aback. "Why?"

            Now that he was relaxed, no longer so intense in their flirtation, Nicole felt equally comfortable. She told him all about the program she'd heard about through her study in hospitality management, an opportunity to work abroad for a year while gaining experience in her field. Keeping the conversation light, she omitted her father's reaction to her entering the program, relating an amusing anecdote instead from her meeting with her new boss, Dorinka Tomljenović. "I kept massacring her last name so badly she finally told me to call her 'Dorinka' -- I mean, I had no idea the 'j' is meant to sound like a 'y'. Why don't you just use a 'y'?"

            Luka laughed. "Croatian names are spelled crazy. But we can't use 'y' for that sound because it doesn't exist in our language."

            "Seriously? I mean, you're missing a whole letter?"

            "But we have plenty of others to make up for it." Nicole thought to pursue that line of conversation, but Luka asked, "So, besides working in a hotel for Dorinka Tomljenović, what will you do with yourself here in Rovinj?"

            She relayed to him what a fun town she found it to be, reiterating how she had already made friends. She told him about the twice-monthly trips she needed to make to a large town nearby, Pula, to study Croatian culture -- tittering in discomfort when Luka made a derogatory remark about Croatia's hardly having a culture of its own, but rather stealing it from the Italians, Austrians, and Turks. In response to his comment she explained how truly beautiful what she had seen of the country seemed to her, and beautiful she found the language, how friendly the people.

            Luka stared into her eyes. "But are we beautiful like our country and our language?"

            Nicole tittered again, not sure how to answer such a question.

            Rather than relieve the tension this time, Luka leaned forward and directed, "Poljubi me."


            "Kiss me," he translated.

            She ducked her head. "It's not time yet."

            "What a pity."

            She took the initiative this time to lighten the mood, asking him about his study plans at the University of Denver. Pride entered his voice as he related the Masters degree in economics he would earn from an American university. He squeezed her fingers. "Only now the timing seems bad."

            "What a pity," she echoed him.

            She noticed the music had started up again. A solo artist sat perched on a stool strumming a guitar with a keyboardist discreetly in the background to play back up. The singer's deep voice caressed the words of the ballad; the unfamiliar Croatian syllables whispered in Nicole's ears. "Oh," she breathed, "It's so beautiful."

            Luka cocked his head to listen then nodded. "Ah, Gibonni, yes. His most famous song, 'Libar'." Gaze into her eyes again. "It's a love song."

            She swallowed. "I know." And she did; she didn't need to understand the words to feel the sentiment, to comprehend the deeper meaning.

            Luka took the opportunity her distraction provided. He led her closer to the stage, positioning himself close behind her. He was just touching the sensitive skin of her bare back, and she shivered. She did not move. He whispered in her ear. "He is singing of love. Ljubav."

            His warm breath on her air raised more goose bumps. "Ljubav," she repeated. The word felt exquisite in her mouth.

            "Ljubav," Luka whispered in her ear again. Her nerve endings tingled. The whole night seemed like it was weaving a spell around her.

            Ljubav, one of the first words she learned in Croatian -- along with "sorry."
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